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How to measure a virtuous circle

ESD can be a valuable focus for self-evaluation, writes Leszek Iwaskow

How do you measure education for sustainable development? It is not a subject; there are no programmes of study or clear parameters. It is a concept which embraces many aspects of school life, and each school will have its own focus and starting point, so where do you start measuring this circle?

The Office for Standards in Education's 2003 report, Taking the First Step Forward Towards an Education for Sustainable Development, aimed to provide a platform for schools to identify good practice and encourage them on their sustainability journey. We hoped schools would reflect on their current position and identify strategies to improve practice. Two years later and self-evaluation is high on the agenda, forming the basis for the new inspection process which begins this month.

Although environmental care and awareness are part of education for sustainability, it also encompasses economic and social principles such as social responsibility, ethical trade, global awareness, participation, diversity, quality of life, human rights and inclusion. These are not dissimilar to the agenda of Every Child Matters, which covers issues at the very core of the inspection of every school.

The well-being of pupils has always been central to inspections, but these become more significant in the new framework. In schools which promote ESD, the values of Every Child Matters are central. A number of successful and forward-thinking schools are grasping the potential and challenges of establishing sustainability as a core value for their school in order to address the needs of pupils, the school and the wider community.

However, it is important to realise that, in most schools, ESD evolves as part of a developmental process which in some cases has taken many years.

Initially, this "one small step" may have been a project started by one individual or a small group. The enthusiasm of pupils and staff involved has frequently raised awareness and led to further actions.

Aspects of ESD are observable in most schools, although they may not always be identified as such. For example, many have a school council. These can allow pupils to express their views, argue for their rights and help improve their learning environment. ESD gives this process a clear focus.

Teachers have noticed that vandalism decreases when pupils feel responsible for their learning environment. This clearly suggests pupils are "making a positive contribution to society".

There is plenty of scope for schools to use self-evaluation to identify aspects of sustainability and their impact on pupils' learning and development. The section of the evaluation form dealing with personal development and well-being offers many opportunities for a school to assess the impact of ESD. It is possible to comment on the extent to which pupils value diversity; how they show a capacity to contribute to the wider community; whether they get involved, arguing for personal viewpoints and actions, making a difference and re-thinking how they are living their lives. Equally, the school can take a positive lead and identify, as part of "being healthy", "walking buses" in their transport policy or the promotion of fair-trade products and local produce in school food.

In evaluating their provision, schools can identify and assess activities that nurture specific attitudes and values.

It is an opportunity to consider if the school is a "building that teaches" in terms of waste management, natural resource conservation, recycling, and energy and water use. What better way for pupils to develop financial competencies, enterprise skills and the ability to work collaboratively than in learning about these issues in day-to-day school life?

It's for schools themselves to determine how to undertake a self-evaluation. Even the self-evaluation form, though crucial for inspection, is not a statutory requirement. There are a number of frameworks available from development agencies and environmental groups as well as the DfES. Whichever is chosen, it is important to use the experience to identify where the school is on its journey towards sustainable development. This should inform actions which need to be taken to continue this journey. In evaluating their progress, schools might find it helpful to ask questions about the impact of sustainable issues on improving pupils' learning and attitudes. This may well point to key areas for development which can be included in the next school improvement plan.

Where to start when measuring a circle? Perhaps by trying to understand and unravel the complexities of ESD and then identify those aspects which are evident and already being nurtured within the school. Self-evaluation should allow a school to gauge its effectiveness in the development of ESD and highlight areas which will benefit the pupils. Starting points will vary, but to measure a circle you have to begin at a point and continue the journey from there.

Leszek Iwaskow HMI is specialist adviser for geography with responsibility for ESD at Ofsted

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